Come out to Chatham Mills tomorrow from 9am-1pm for the Pollinator Festival! You can learn about (and try!) mead, taste different honeys (including our NC Sourwood), watch live bee demonstrations and more. Kids activities, door prizes, and lots of exhibits celebrating our favorite Pollinators. Check out the wonderful local products at the Chatham Marketplace Grocery Co-op and farmer’s market too. While you are at it, why not stay for lunch at Oakleaf? Visit Starrlight Mead and take home a bottle from their amazing collection of meads!
I love learning. Having a farm seems to require it. There is always something unexpected happening that requires immediate knowledge in an unexpected domain. So it is fun to pass on some of our learning. I spend a lot of time working on my bee education in the form of the NC Master Beekeeper program. It requires thorough knowledge and mastery of all topics of bee biology, management, processing, & stewardship. Teaching and outreach is a big part of the requirements. We’ve done a lot so far this year: helping with senior projects, elementary school projects, local outreach, and newbie mentoring. Good stuff.
Months back Hana, a Middle Creek High School senior, contacted me about her senior project about honeybees. I met her mom at a farmer’s market during the year and she followed up). Hana was interested in what people could do to help the struggling bee population. She did an impressive amount of research and crafted a thoughtful paper. But the project required getting your hands dirty, or sticky. So Hana came over for a visit to the bee yard. Together we inspected a hive. Kudos to her for the bravery to jump in for research sake. I think she even enjoyed it or at least appreciated the monumental work the bees do. Her project included a slideshow, essay & video. She gave me permission to post some of it here. Well done Hana!
A few weeks back I also had the pleasure of helping out an investigative group from Exploris Elementary school. Ms. Ruto’s 4th/5th grade class selected honeybees for their research & assist project. One sunny March day, I had the pleasure of hosting them at our bee yard at Ninja Cow Farm in Garner. They already knew quite a bit from other research but we talked habitat loss and what everyday folks can do to help bees. In small groups, they tried being a forager bee in a scavenger hunt, made pollinator seed balls, and inspected a hive with me. A day to remember for me and hopefully them too.
And all the while I’ve started mentoring some new beekeepers. This is the biggest benefit of bee club membership – finding someone to ask those newbie questions. There is so much new & unfamiliar that it is helpful to get another opinion when things seem blurry. I think most beekeepers, regardless of experience, have a mentor. Someone to bounce ideas off or think through challenges. I have several I call on. I got to help a mentee (?) inspect a new hive this spring. How fun to watch someone building their skills and getting swept away by the fascination of bees! I got thanked by a big fat sting on the face. My lip swelled up so much I couldn’t even eat my humble pie.
We love hosting friends and customers to visit our farm babies & hives. And having kids take an interest in our business is the best! There are no greater ambassadors of farming than baby animals. Chicks and ducks top the list for fluffability. Getting kids (and adults) interested in sustainable food production is easy when they can see and touch a well cared for animal. Plus it sneaks in a little science when no one is looking.
We aren’t quite ready to open the farm gates wide for the public. But we are able to invite more and more folks out to see and experience what we are working on. For those who can’t make it to us, we have several outreach events coming up. Pollinator festivals in both Chatham and Wake Counties plus several farmers market events. And as I continue on my Master Beekeeper path, I’ll be attending conferences & workshops throughout the year like this one. Everything in an effort to keep learning & growing the farm without getting schooled.
Last time I wrote about us transitioning from observing cows to owning them. It was a big step given our knowledge of cows is 0 out of 10. But I know a bit about horses and chickens so hopefully barnyard 101 can somewhat transfer.
After many years of heavy herd pressure our pasture was feeling a bit like me in August: short, hot, and tired. Part of our plan was to give the pasture some much needed rest. Overgrazing gives the weeds a leg up and keeps down the grass & clover goodies because they are constantly being knocked back. So we rested. For about 3-4 months we rested the pasture. And amazing things happened. Grass grew! Clover popped up like wildfire! All without any seeding, liming, tilling, or work. We just did nothing. My kind of improvement.
Rotational grazing is common theme among cattlemen, but with only 10 acres of open pasture, moving cows into new paddocks daily/weekly/whenever seemed like treadmill running. A lot of motion with nowhere to go. But since Dexters are smaller cows they allow a higher stocking rate (or less frequent rotation). They are great foragers, eating some things other cattle breeds would snub. So we laid out a plan to divide our petite pasture into 4 pie shaped slices all with access to the pond. To build our herd, we purchased 4 cows: a 2 year old bred cow (pregnant) and 3 heifer (girl) yearlings. No boys. Chris Green called one day “Ummm, You know your 4 cows? You now have 5.” Our 2 year old mama couldn’t wait. Baby came early but healthy and a girl to boot. The more the merrier!
Mooooving day was surprisingly uneventful. Alan Green & intern Justin delivered mama (Oatmeal) and baby girl (Raisin) plus the 3 yearlings. The girls all hid in the woods for a few days adjusting and exploring the new place. But being new parents, we fretted. Sunday afternoon Oatmeal suddenly started bellowing – constantly. Constant, loud, yelling-type mooing for an hour or more. Baby Raisin was close by her side so I assumed it must be some intestinal distress. Like a Rolaids commercial after Thanksgiving dinner. I panicked. On went the mooing loud, insistent. I was prepared to call a vet (Sunday afternoon, right?). But talked myself off the ledge to phone a friend first. Turns out, Oatmeal was probably homesick. Just looking for her herd mates or maybe her neighborhood bull. (Nonexistent) crisis averted. New parents. Sheesh.
In a few short weeks Oatmeal has quickly learned what a feed bucket looks like. And what a whistle sounds like. Even the sight of the chickens’ scratch container will bring Oatmeal running. A handful of sweet feed makes for a friendly cow. “You do have something, don’t you?” her gaze says. But with her impressive horns, she chases off the little heifers to hog it herself. Soon enough we hope to make inroads with the younger ones. Someday maybe we will venture into a milking experiment. Lots of possibilities. Right now, it is a delight to see them grazing away or play chase in the tall grass. They are so peaceful to watch.
“Why didn’t you get a bull?” people ask. Because we only have 5 cows. Having a bull is handy to take care of the breeding when needed but it begs the question of genetics – you can’t keep the babies to breed back to the daddy. So there has to be some swapping. Since we are just starting out, we may eventually play The Dating Game and take the girls to visit a nearby beau or consider artificial insemination. Pros & cons to be weighed. There will be plenty of time for arranged unions down the road. Right now we’re enjoying & learning. And trying not to call the vet for homesickness or any other bull.
When we purchased the farm a year and a half ago, it came with cows. Kinda. There were cows on the farm. Eating grass, mooing, leaving patties. All doing legit cow business. The problem was, they weren’t ours.
Our new friend Greg had kept cattle on the property for a while. No mowing, no land leases. A win, win situation for both cow and land owner. We had (and still have) so many projects on the horizon, we were happy to leave Greg’s cows munching away in the pasture. They were fun to look at, they do crazy stuff, and they made us new friends. But in the back of our minds we knew someday we would like to have our own herd.
What we lacked in knowledge (like everything – we have never owned cows) we had in mentors. Paul’s best friend just happens to run a grass fed cattle farm, Ninja Cow Farm. Plus we know Greg, experienced hobbyist and highly familiar with our land. Then there is Chatham Extension, Farm Service, and You Tube. Bring it on.
It was actually a long process starting late last year as Greg whittled down the herd on our property and relocated them other land. It was kind of sad the day they took the last ones off the property. I talked to those cows a lot – mostly when people weren’t around. Not everyone gets my level of weird. But we felt committed to the idea of having our own herd.
I’ve written before about our farm’s history as a poultry farm back when the Clouse family ran it, but the Clouses did other things too. Like raise cows. And not just any cows, they specialized in a heritage breed of cattle well suited to small pastures and equally useful for both meat and dairy production – Dexter cattle. There aren’t many Dexter breeders out there, compared to that of Angus or Hereford cattle. Dexters are the homestead cow. Good for pulling carts or plows, good for milking, good for meat, good foragers, and well tempered. But they are small and most cattlemen like big beef. So Dexters are often relegated to the fringes of homesteaders. We knew we’d be laughed at by the big boys, but we don’t have plans to run a commercial ranching operation. We are small.
So we were drawn to this breed. It suited our pasture size, our management goals, and our provenance. We set off Dexter shopping. Well not really, because Dexter breeders are spread across the country (and remember, we know nothing about cows). But through the CFSA Farm Tour, we met the fine folks at Woodcrest Farm. They not only raise Dexter cattle, and chickens, goats, rabbits, etc. but they do cool things like blacksmith and make soap. That made them kindred spirits.
We spent a year thinking about cows and as the time got right, we contacted the Green family at Woodcrest to talk Dexters. Chris Green helped us greatly as we discussed our goals and asked the requisite newbie questions. But the biggest selling feature came down to connections. Many of the cattle in the Green’s herd had lineage to cows from our farm (formerly known as Rocky Hill Farm). Not Greg’s cows, but the Clouse’s Dexters from years ago. So these animals were related to us. Sort of, right? We thought so and jumped in with all four hooves. (More to come in Part 2)
I skipped town this weekend. There was a lot going on around the farm. We are smack in thimble of spring planting, the heavy spring nectar flow, house construction deadlines…. But I carelessly left town in pursuit of the elusive queen. Her royal highness of the hive, mama to all, queen big booty. Despite the 40,000-60,000 worker bees in a hive, there is only one queen (usually -nothing is cut & dry). One who lays eggs. One who passes on genetics. One who sets the tone for the entire colony. She is pretty important – so she gets the imaginary crown.
As beekeepers, most of the challenges we (and the bees) face can be traced back to the queen. Weak colonies, varroa mites, nosema disease, poor foraging, swarming, winter kill, can be linked to queen troubles. And it’s our convenient excuse for colony problems. “Queen wasn’t mated well”. “Queen wasn’t hygienic”. “Queen had poor pattern” “Queen was mean!” Blaming the faceless corporate queen rearers – easy explanations for our woes. The majority of queen bees raised in this country come from hot spots: FL, GA, CA, TX. Places it is warm early in the year to raise the big girls. And they are raised in huge quantities – some breeders up to 100,000 queens/ year.
But there is a growing movement of beekeepers looking for local bees, queens included. In response, the NC Beekeepers Association (NCSBA) introduced their “NC Born & Bred” program to infuse our state with newbie queen rearers. Me included.
This weekend’s class was led by the who’s who in NC beekeeping. Folks who know bees. They drilled into me (and a 100 other inquiring minds) the tactics for raising quality NC queens. It was a rich experience and I left exhausted. (I think I won for most questions asked). I also left inspired but daunted by the complexity of the biology and also by the responsibility to do better by our bees. Plus it requires a whole new set of bee gear – nerd love!
The learning curve sounds pretty steep – true of most things in beekeeping. But I am intrigued. Queens cost $25-30+ plus shipping. And there are no guarantees that they are quality or will be accepted by the bees. I’ve personally watched a hive kill 2 queens in a row this year (for reasons I’m yet to understand). So the idea of raising my own queens can save money. But even better, it will allow me to choose genetics I like from my favorite colonies to reproduce. Plus I like the whole self sufficiency aspect.
People spend their lives dedicated to perfecting their queen production. So little old me in my backyard has got some learning to do. But Carolina was named for the royal King Charles I who granted the land. We should be able to craft some legit crown-worthy women. And I can’t wait to start.
The house project has been moving at marathon pace. Slow & steady. It seems that every project is 2 steps forward, 1 step back. With every board and joint out of square, out of plumb, out of level- we’ve been out of our minds. We’re at the point where I don’t know if it would have been faster or easier to wipe the slate clean and start over. Too late.
We’ve gone through layers of siding, window musical chairs, and a front door shift. And it still looks like a fireman’s training exercise. But we are poised to take some big steps – new siding, new drywall – there is even talk of cabinets. Have we crested the hill of ripping out the old and starting to put in the new? I can only dream.
So we plod on at marathon pace, knowing that the race doesn’t start until the last 6 miles. I’m not sure which mile we are on. But I hope it’s past #13….
Ducks are entertainers. Aflac knows this and exploits it so well that no one can say the company name without quacking. Ducks are fun to have around. Watching them waddle brings a smile – watching them run is hysterical. So we have added to the duck flock this spring. 14 new little peepers back in March. They arrived by US Mail in a precious peeping box and have grown faster than the weeds.
To accommodate the new ducks, we changed Duckingham Palace from a permanent domain to a mobile version. The house got a lift kit and an open concept layout. And we added electrified poultry netting to give them a big backyard – with a pool.
The first pool worked well for out existing adults, but it turned out to be too deep for the adolescent ducks to exit. Most of them were coming and going fine, but one got stuck. I had just come from a bee swarm collection in Garner. Before installing them I made a quick trip to check on everyone on the farm. That’s when I noticed her huddled and shivering in the pool. Without a full set of adult feathers, a long soak in a cold tub is deadly. Not good.
I don’t know how long he had been there but
she didn’t protest when I picked her up. Highly unusual. I wrapped her in my jacket and she laid her head on my arm. I hurried her to the house. Even though the farmhouse is still under construction, we had heat & air. I cranked up the heat and held her wet and shivering over an air duck, um, duct. She dried fairly quickly but I kept her indoors for a little while to make sure she was ok. When I found her strolling through the kids bedroom I knew she was ready to rejoin the group.
We have since upgraded the pool to a bigger but shallower model. Everyone seems quite pleased. Now they have a shady yard and a bigger pool. Party time! Alas, the older ducks still refuse to associate with the enormous group of teenage ducks who must seem like a nervous herd of preteen girls. But soon enough, those teeny boppers will be turning the heads of our 2 drakes. Summertime is calling.
Most animals choose to have their babies in spring. So this time of year nature is deluged with baby fever. We have had the great pleasure to receive our share of little ones recently too.
Charlotte, one of our oldest hens, went broody in March and stayed committed to her post on the nest. A few weeks ago she hatched out several Buck Naked babies. Last year, another veteran Lily hatched out our first on farm chicks – who all turned out to be roosters. Tough choices to be made. We aren’t quite sure who is who in Charlotte’s brood this year but it does look like proud papa Patton has fathered a full blooded Buff Orpington cockerel (baby rooster). Spaghetti wants to name him Ike. But there appears to be a couple of pullets (baby hens) in the mix too. Yea!! Homegrown Buck Naked Ladies! These little ones are growing up old school, free ranging on the farm with mama. Dangerous (we lost 1 early on) but all natural.
As Charlotte sat on her nest, other hens would drop by to visit and leave an egg with her. I cleared most of these out but after a communication lapse, we ended up with 6 eggs in Charlotte’s nest that had started developing but were no where near hatching when she got up to care for her newly hatched babies. What to do? I candled the eggs and could see movement. There was life there. Left alone in the nest, the embryos would die. So I took them home.
I don’t have an incubator. Just haven’t gotten around to spending the money. But I had read some vague stories online about the possibility of using a dehydrator to incubate eggs. An incubator has to hold a steady temperature (around 100 degrees) and a high humidity (50%+). A dehydrator can do them temperature but it removes humidity. Not an exact match. But I was desperate. The eggs couldn’t cool off for long. So I make-shifted a setup – covering the fan, adding a pan of water, and surrounding the eggs with wet towels. And waited. 2 weeks.
2 weeks of waiting, refilling water pans, turning the eggs, and wondering what nonsense I had started. I was up early one Saturday morning typing away when I heard a bird sound, nearer than a wild bird should be. Couldn’t be….. A very confused floppy chick fumbling about in the dehydrator. I was elated! It worked. The darn thing worked. I tapped the other eggs for sound or movement, but nothing. But the eggs didn’t smell rotten so I kept the faith. And sure enough, for the next 3 days, 4 more little ones hatched out of those eggs. Against all odds. Against all the rules and standards in the books. Life found a way. I was floored.
I’m sure I couldn’t do it again: beginners luck for sure. And it wasn’t all glory. One egg failed to hatch and one hatchling died. Gripping sad stuff. But I took a lesson from Charlotte. She knew when to sit patiently and when to move on to care for her brood. So I am delighted to announce that Buck Naked Farm has had 2 successful hatches of Buck Naked babies this spring. (For those who care: 1 Buff, 1 Welsummer, 1 Speckled Sussex, 1 Ameraucana, and 1 ???? All crossed with either Taco or Patton.)
If all goes well, these new additions should be grown and laying by August. Maybe even some new egg colors for the cartons. And while all this is going on in the coop, another group of babies hatched out on the pond. Our annual Canada Goose visitor finished her nest sitting with 6 baby goslings. With another goose nest in the pasture, the babe keep rolling in. A real spring baby blitz.
This weekend is your chance to see your food up close. This is as local as it gets. Baby goats, chicks, cows, cuteness and farm fresh air. The CFSA Piedmont Farm tour is this weekend Sat & Sunday from 2-6. 35 Farms all over the NC piedmont are opening their gates to visitors to see the diversity of NC’s locally grown goods. NC Bison? Check. Llamas? Yep. Mushrooms, produce, pigs, & honey? All on display. Did someone say honey????
Last year we got to be tourists and visit other farms. This year, we work. We will be at the Central Carolina Community College (4C’s) in Pittsboro on Saturday. The Chatham County Beekeepers maintain 4 educational club hives at the 4C’s. We will be there this weekend along with our other bee loving friends talking bees, discussing plants, & selling honey.
The CFSA Farm tour is a one price per car admission ($30) to as many farms as you can visit in one day. Stuff some friends in the vehicle and see just how many farms you can take in. They even make it easy by mapping out routes of nearby farms. It’s a great way to meet the folks who grow the stuff you put in your mouth. Kinda important. Lots of the farms like us will have local goods for sale too. Check out the CFSA webpage for all the details. Buttons can be bought ahead of time, online, or at the first farm you visit. Grab your boots & get outside!
Last post I mentioned that we caught 2 swarms this week: one was from my hives, one wasn’t. Full confession on my swarm is posted here. Recovering your own swarm is like getting the rebound from your missed shot. A second chance. But a feral swarm? Like getting 2 free-throws and the fouled bucket. Bonus!
The Wake County Beekeepers Association is an active group of hobbyist, backyard, and sideline beekeepers. They educate new beekeepers, do community outreach, and field swarm calls. I was the lucky recipient of such a call this week. Sauce was packing up to head out with Grammy & Gramps for a week at the beach when the call came in. If you want the swarm, you have to go immediately. Swarms congregate on a raised surface (fence, tree, your mailbox) for 1-24 hours debating their new home before making a decision and flying off to settle in. Once they land on that surface, the clock starts ticking.
So I hugged Sauce a few extra times and hurried him off with grandparents while I took off for Garner. Swarm reports are notoriously suspect. Some people report wasps or yellow jackets. Sometimes they are 40 feet in the air. In someone’s gutters. Or sometimes you get no info at all. A good Samaritan called the Wake County Beekeepers to politely come get these bees. This particular swarm had been parked in a bush in a suburban neighborhood for at least 24 hrs already. Tick tock. Luckily I keep all my swarm gear in the car for just such occasions. Off I went.
The swarm was a pretty easy capture. Just a few feet off the ground, tightly clustered. I
moved them into my transport box and waited for them to settle. A neighbor walking her dog eyed me suspiciously and turned around. I don’t blame her. I was dressed all in white, resting on my car bumper checking my email surrounded by confused, whirling bees. Any thinking person would turn around. But the bees in the box fanned their pheromones and drew the confused outliers back in. In 15 minutes we were ready to roll.
I carried them straight to the farm, far away from any potential homesite they were considering and installed them in a fancy new place. In the drive from the swarm to the farm, they had already built comb on the roof of the box. These girls needed a home. The most curious part of the morning was a forager bee loaded down with pollen in the swarm. Pollen is collected to feed babies. They had none. Pollen is stored in comb. They had none. Was she out foraging and got caught up in the tide of swarming bees? Or an uber prepared forager just waiting to unload the groceries? Either way she would have to wait on the house bees to build some new comb so she can unpack her pockets.
We welcomed this new hive to live in our feature hive on the farm. The pretty English garden hive in my fledgling pollinator garden. It’s great to finally see the hive buzzing for the first time this spring. New life lifts the spirits. Especially when it’s bonus bees. But just as I prepared to rest on my laurels (I actually don’t have any of those) I noticed a nearby duck emergency. But that’s a story for next time.